Terror and Hope

“Make art from the places that terrify you,” my artistic mentor, Amy O, said this time last year. And it has proven good advice. Most of us have a lot of things that terrify us, and that turns out to be a good thing.

If you’re an artist.

But a surprising thing happens when you move into those spaces where your deepest terrors live. Yesterday I was writing a scene in which a character is haunted by his memory of his dead wife. He can see her responses to television commercials just as if she were in the room. He holds conversations with her. For almost twenty years, he has kept this woman alive, so that he never truly had to grieve her death. So he would never have to move past it.

That scene encapsulates one of my deepest fears: to enter into a relationship from which there can be no extraction. To love so deeply that there is no life beyond that love. Something far beyond dependency or identification with another person–a relationship that does not redefine the self but rather obliterates it, that recognizes daily the Buddhist principle that “There is no self.”

If it falls apart, if the beloved dies, if that conception of “we” that has replaced the “I” is then obliterated as well–then what?

My character doesn’t want to know. So he clings to the dead wife, reinventing her each day in his own mind.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to know, either. But as I wrote that scene, a funny thing happened. I started to hope–not only for this character–but also for myself, for my own future relationships. For life. And in that darkness of my own fear, I came across a tender, green sprout. As if the fear were merely soil from which something better could grow. And eventually blossom.

Joseph Campbell, the philosopher/mythologist, calls this the “innermost cave” in his conception of The Hero’s Journey. It’s the hero’s moment of truth. The do-or-die moments when each of us comes face-to-face with our dragons. So yeah, sure, there’s a dragon in that dreaded cave–but there’s a pearl, too. There’s a treasure. A magic seed. There’s something worth the terror–something you can take back to your everyday life, better armed for the next moment of truth.

And I’m starting to wonder if that pearl, that little sprout in the darkness, is hope. I’m still not sure yet. I’m still thinking about this. But I wonder if, by following our greatest fears to their natural conclusions, what we find at the end of that road is not despair but hope–that there might be other ways for a life to turn out than what, in our darkest moments, we imagine.

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